He was at every film festival on earth, or so it seemed: boisterous, gregarious, with that deep, booming voice, and spreading his extraordinary warmth. Who of you out there in critic-land have not shared a tasty dinner, or downed a brewski, somewhere on the globe with Peter Brunette? Who had not stuck with him, long into the festival night, when Peter — his term — would get properly “shitfaced”? Unusual in our stiff-in-our-body, I’d-rather-hide-in-the-dark profession, Peter was that weirdo film critic who really liked to have fun. Decades of world traveling and filmic erudition barely corralled the ex-Duquesne University frat boy boogalooing beneath, salivating to party.
Curiously, this Falstaffian was also an incurable worrywart. “My psychiatrist tells me I have this very rare thing called a ‘Floating Anxiety Order,’ “ Peter informed me a few months ago in a telephone talk. He certainly did, obsessively fretting about whatever. “OK, I’ve got this festival figured out,” he would anounce on a first afternoon at Toronto, Cannes, anywhere, as he laid out a complicated game plan about how he would somehow get through the next days. His apprehensions started with a formidable lineup of films he’d been assigned to review for indieWIRE, or Screen International, or, in recent times, The Hollywood Reporter. Or there would be interviews he’d agreed on with negligible filmmakers because (That was Peter!) the female publicists representing them were twenty-something and damned cute.
“You don’t need to do this stuff,” I would lecture Dr. Brunette. “You don’t need the money. You’re a highly-paid, much-respected senior faculty at Wake Forest University. You’ve done incredibly in the stock market. Why bother with this journalist ephemera when you’ve written important scholarly volumes on Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai, Haneke? Peter, your Roberto Rossellini is among the ten greatest film books of all time.” I actually would say all this.
Deaf ears. Partying away the night, Peter in the day was an unstoppable, Type-A workaholic. Also, and he agreed with my analysis, he had a Clintonian thirst to be noticed and liked. So the film reviews — and they were smart and good ones — spilled out at every festival. The publicists adored him (well, that hour) for writing about their clients. Byline: Peter Brunette.
You might not believe it, but Peter was not always a film festival hound, nor even a film critic. I’m the one who brought him out of the cold and into the fold.
Flashback, forty years, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a famous hotbed of campus radicalism — “the Berkeley of the Midwest” — and a legendary nirvana of campus film culture. On a weekend evening, ten cinema societies showed movies on campus, many of them obscure, silent, or foreign-language. In summer 1972 , I met Peter Brunette in Madison on the Student Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. A movie dork, I hadn’t traveled anywhere, and here was Peter back from living in Paris for a year or two, speaking beautiful French, and with a serious-minded, sophisticated girlfriend, Lynne Johnson. I was mightily impressed. Had they partaken of Gallic film culture? Actually, Peter was a total lit person in those days, writing a Ph.D. in the English Department about John Barth. It was Lynne who had spent night and day swooning at the Cinematheque, and who turned on Peter to cinephilia. Still, he hadn’t a thought in the world to hold forth about movies.
Here’s how I brought my new friend to Madison film culture: as a humble photographer! I asked him along with his still camera for interviews with British critics Peter Wollen and Robin Wood for the periodical, Film Heritage. But it was his knowledge of foreign languages which allowed for his breaking into print, when I chose Peter as my collaborator for a meeting with the eccentric Spanish playwright-filmmaker, Fernando Arrabal. The interview was in French, Peter did the translating, and he took fabulous photographs of the showman-surrealist posing in a motel bed. We were published around 1974 in Cineaste. Peter’s debut. I think, as a film writer.
Flash-ahead to summer 1985. In the years between, Peter had educated himself about cinema. He proved an uncanny quick study, operating much the way he seemed to swallow whole new languages. He was a professor at George Mason University in the D.C. area, and he had slowly shed his literature classes to teach film courses. His special expertise: Italian cinema. His big new interest: film theory, buoyed by his adoration of, and eventual friendship with, Jacques Derrida. Most summers, he and Lynne (now his wife) would travel to France and Italy.
This particular July, Peter was visiting me on Cape Cod, and I encouraged him to do what I did, attend film festivals. Peter often repeated this story, of how he balked and said, “Gerry, no. I’m an academic. I’m not a journalist. What would I possibly do at a film festival?” But I was a man with a plan, a man with a scam. He’d written for Film Quarterly, so I said: “What’s the most obscure thing playing at the upcoming Montreal World Film Festival? Film Quarterly will go for that.” I was right: Peter secured a Film Quarterly assignment, and I put him on the phone with the publicist for Montreal. Peter was so nervous making a pitch, but he was invited up at once, his hotel and plane paid for.
August 1985, Montreal, Peter Brunette’s initial film festival. He was friggin’ thrilled. I’ll never forget the first press conference he attended, wearing a dreadful faded corduroy jacket with — yuck! — elbow patches. Professor gear! And he asked some laborious, pretentious, totally out-of-it professor question to a confused film director. On the other hand, he saw Jane Fonda there, and Clint Eastwood, and went to lots of so-cool cocktail parties. He hung out with his friends. He got his short essay on a monumentally marginal film printed in Film Quarterly. And the icing on the cake: Peter’s mesmeric flirtation with a gorgeous Quebecoise producer.
What’s not to love about film festivals? That’s what Peter Brunette discovered at his very first one. He got bit! He stayed smitten for 25 years hence. When his wife, Lynne, died in 2007, I persuaded Peter that his mourning would be softened a bit if he accompanied me soon after to SxSW.
At age 66, he died last week at — what else? — a film festival in Taormina, Italy. Tragedy!
All of you will appreciate this. Some closure.
Laszlo Kriston in Budapest had been trying to locate me for days. I got several incredible e-mails this morning from the Hungarian critic. He was Peter’s sole breakfast partner, sitting across the table at Taormina when Peter collapsed. He’s in shock, and it’s been so hard on him, but he wanted Peter’s friends to know. In summary, this is what Laszlo said in his intense, courageous missives:
Peter had felt sick the evening before, and had a bad night of sleep, thinking he had acid reflux. Peter sipped tea at the breakfast table, and told Laszlo that he spent too many hours in the cinema munching on nuts, rushing between films, not dining properly. Laszlo: “He said he should start thinking about changing his way of life because at his age he can’t go on living this way.” Laszlo suggested he should eat fruit and vegetables, and Laszlo mentioned his own love of figs. Laszlo: “ ‘So, you’re a fig man?’ he said, amused, with a strange twinkle in his eyes as he gave me a very long, sort of philosophical look.”
“So, you’re a fig man?” appears to have been Peter’s last sentence. After that, Peter closed his eyes, his breathing became heavier and, as Laszlo wondered if his breakfast companion was doing some kind of meditative exercise, Peter’s head turned slowly. Laszlo: “Then he did not move anymore. Nor did he breathe! That was when I realized he’d lost consciousness.”
Also, Laszlo wrote: “There was nothing to suggest muscle cramps were at work, no ‘trepidity,’ no facial tics….My impression [was that] I don’t think Peter suffered physically when he died.”
Thanks, Laszo!. Isn’t it a relief to know what happened? Coupled with the knowledge that Peter was having a stupendous late Spring, drifting happily from European festival to festival? That’s what I heard from folks who hung out him at Cannes: Peter was in a good place, OK with himself.
Some of you are already privy to Peter’s last Facebook posting, one miraculously blissful and peaceful:
Luxuriating in the view over the Sicilian coast, the Mt. Etna volcano, and the Mediterranean sea here at the Taormina Film Festival. Oh yeah, and seeing some good films too!
One of his long-time friends e-mailed me about the above: “It’s just the way he’d want to go — only in about 30 years.’ I e-mailed back: “You are correct, at age 96. But AFTER breakfast.”
Peter Brunette, you will be so missed at the movies, at the festivals, and at the parties! This is my long goodbye to you, pal.
With love, “Gerry the P,” what you always called me.